Ali Barter's Travel Guide To India
Our Guest Editor takes us through one of her favourite travel destinations.
Ahead of the release of her debut album, A Suitable Girl, this Friday 24 March, Ali Barter is our Guest Editor for the week - providing some insight into the album, and also a few of her favourite things. Today, it's India:
I have been visiting India since I was 13. I can’t say that I loved it the first time. I refused to eat anything except omelettes. I wasn’t into temples and history. I was also a chubby pre-pubescent girl at a ripe marriageable age, so I found the attention from men disturbing. No one had looked twice at me in Australia, and now I stuck out like a awkward, sweaty, sore thumb.
However, India has a way of getting inside your soul. I returned when I was 20 and have travelled back many more times in the past 10 years. This is my short guide to travelling through India.
Stick to vegetarian food
With almost half a billion committed vegetarians, they have had enough practise to make ‘veg’ a real delight.
Eat a masala dosa with your (right) hand at a road-side stall
A crispy potato-filled rice pancake, with coconut chutney on the side. Your left-handed friend may struggle because that hand is reserved for wiping your arse.
Grab a thali
A tin platter containing many small dishes. A couple of curries, some rice, chutneys, pickles, yoghurt and a few pieces of bread. It’s a choose your own adventure.
Make music in India
Indians do a lot of things very well, but making guitars is not one of them. The brand seen most in India is Givson. Yep, Givson. They sound roughly like big, out-of-tune ukeleles.
Irrespective, India is a great place to write music. It is far enough away from my normal reality that I can find a new perspective. I wrote my song Girlie Bits last year in a beach hut in Goa. I wrote a song called Hypercolour in a lakeside haveli in Rajasthan. I have awoken before dawn to sit out the balcony of my guesthouse with my iPhone poised, recording the Muslim calls to prayer and early morning bells from the Hindu temples. These are sounds that I would later sample in songs like At Sea and Madurai from my Community EP. India has been a great inspiration to me.
Catch an overnight bus
When catching an overnight bus, be prepared for a few things:
a) The roads are terrifying.
b) The horn will sound constantly. But it is never aggressive. It’s more like saying, ‘Hey, I’m next to you/behind you/hurtling towards you/about to explode a cow’. So if you were planning to sleep on the journey, think again.
c) At some point you will stop at a tumbledown roadside shack for a chai-and-toilet break.
This is where I experienced my first female urinal. Approach the toilet block and make sure you keep your place in line - those tiny old ladies will cut you off without remorse. This is where a sari would be helpful. Pants are a bloody nightmare when you are trying to piss into a concrete sink. After a month of bussing around India, you should be able to keep most of it off your clothes.
d) Burping. In India, bodily sounds are a natural part of life. In the West we are so embarrassed about these noises. Not so in India. On a bus, in the middle of the night, it's a veritable orchestra of pops and burps and gurgles. Better out than in, right?
e) You won’t arrive at the time they say. You’ll be ejected at the bus terminal at 4.30am, and no guest houses will be open. The best thing to do is walk to the centre of town, get a chai from the chai walla, smoke a cigarette and watch the sunrise.
The middle class of India is one of the fastest growing in the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than the domestic terminal of Indian airports. With the rise of local budget airlines, such as IndiGo, terminals are rammed. In many cases, it’s cheaper and easier to fly rather than drive; the sky isn’t congested, potholed, and overrun with cows.
Every single individual is patted down at security. The sexes are kept separate. Women enter a curtained room for discretion, and are patted down only by other women. The x-ray machines don’t work and a steady flow of bags, baskets, boxes and babies pass through. I waited in line for hours watching things slide along the conveyor belt as an attendant watched a blank screen.
Once you make it through security, you’re on the home stretch. IndiGo offers a very different menu from the sandwiches and biscuits on Virgin Australia. You might receive a (delicious) samosa, a mango juice box, and a gulab jamen (a syrupy sweet dumpling). It’s a delight.
Find the "real" India?
When many people think of India, they think of yoga on the beach, silent ashrams, barefoot walking around Goa, the sitar, and ayurvedic medicine. However, India is far more that this. Nowadays, people commonly have upward of two mobile phones. There are sub-woofers in the back of auto-rickshaws. Indians eat Italian food and KFC, wear blue jeans and Nikes, start small businesses, and speak fluently across many languages.
When I see westerners walking around barefoot in these increasingly modern city streets I wonder what the locals must think of us. They are working so hard to put shoes on to their feet. They are forwarding their country, in industry, business, technology, education, fashion, and the arts. It is a vibrant and exciting country. Accept India for its contradictions, the incredible wealth and horrific poverty. The strict religious customs and aspirational dreams. It’s noise and it’s stillness. Nowhere have I felt more alive, more inspired, more confused and challenged.
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